Seoul, South Korea – Defense Secretaryon Wednesday called a “serious threat” and told American and South Korean troops here that they were on the “front line” of defense.
Mr. Panetta, who is on his first trip to Seoul as defense secretary, was here to meet with top American commanders and consult with South Korean military leaders on how to respond to North Korean provocations without escalating the long-running conflict.
“This is the front line,” Mr. Panetta told 300 American and South Korean troops at the Yongsan Post, an American Army garrison in Seoul. “The message I bring is this: the United States of America is committed to the defense of the Republic of South Korea.”
Mr. Panetta is on the fifth day of a weeklong trip to Asia meant to project American power in the region and warn China and North Korea that even with coming defense budget cuts, the United States will not reduce its forces here.
His stop in Seoul coincided with a visit to South Korea by a high-level Chinese delegation. On Wednesday, the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, urged China to play a bigger role in dealing with North Korea.
“I wish China to continue to play an important role for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the reforming and opening of North Korea,” Mr. Lee told Li Keqiang, the visiting vice prime minister from China, according to an official statement. “The frequent exchange of visits between North Korean and Chinese leaders is good in that North Korea can learn from the success story of China’s reform and opening.”
Mr. Li arrived in Seoul on Wednesday following his trip earlier this week to Pyongyang, where he met the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il.
He told the South Korean leader that he “stressed several times” to Mr. Kim that “it is important to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and keep peace and stability,” Mr. Lee’s office said.
China has sharply increased investment and trade with North Korea in the past few years, while inter-Korean relations faltered under Mr. Lee’s hard-line policy coupled with the North’s military provocations. This has triggered a debate in Seoul over whether the growing Chinese economic influence in North Korea was helping reform the country or emboldening it not to give up itsand lessen Seoul’s leverage on the North.
On previous stops in Indonesia and Japan, Mr. Panetta directed his words toward China, which has alarmed its neighbors by claiming most of the South China Sea as its own. In Seoul, Mr. Panetta directed his comments toward the government in Pyongyang as he sought to project a united front of the United States and South Korea.
“Working together, our militaries will continue to deter North Korean aggression and stand prepared to defeat the North should it ever force war upon us,” Mr. Panetta wrote in an opinion article published on Wednesday in the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest newspaper.
In the same article, Mr. Panetta called North Korea a “serious threat” and said it had “demonstrated its willingness to conduct provocations that target innocent lives.”
Despite Mr. Panetta’s words, American defense officials said North Korea appeared to be more accommodating earlier this week about possibly returning to six-nation talks aimed at persuading the North to abandon its nuclear ambitions. But a defense official told reporters on Mr. Panetta’s plane that it was too early to tell and that the government in Pyongyang had a long history of erratic behavior.
“We’re in the process of testing whether North Koreans are serious about denuclearization,” the official said.
On Tuesday, American and North Korean officials concluded two days of talks in Geneva by saying they had narrowed their differences about negotiating on the North’s nuclear program. The talks came as Chinese media reported that Mr. Kim, the North Korean leader, had called for a resumption of multilateral negotiations on its nuclear program on the basis of a deal struck in six-party talks in 2005.
No date was set for further bilateral or multilateral talks.
Under the 2005 deal, North Korea agreed to give up its nuclear program in return for economic and diplomatic incentives by all the parties to the talks. That agreement soon came apart after North Korea conducted a nuclear test in 2006 and then pulled out of the six-party talks.
Earlier on Wednesday, he spoke to sailors on the flagship U.S.S. Blue Ridge at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan.